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Agnieszka, the protagonist of Uprooted by Naomi Novik, is incapable of staying neat and tidy for any length of time: her clothes rip, or get stained, and she only has to sit on a chair for a moment for the cushion to start unravelling and the wood to splinter:

there was nothing to sit on but a few alarming chairs pushed up against the wall, delicate fragile-looking confections of white paint and gilt and red velvet cushions...

Finally I decided that no one could put a chair in a room and not mean anyone to sit on it, and I gingerly perched on the edge of one of the chairs, holding my skirts close against me.

The moment I sat, the door opened and a servant came in, a woman in a crisp black dress, something like Danka’s age with a small pursed mouth of disapproval. I sprang up guiltily. Four long gleaming red threads followed me unraveling from the cushion, caught on a burr on my skirt, and a long sharp white-painted splinter snagged in my sleeve and broke off.

Agnieszka is being as careful as she can, sits on the chair only for a split-second, but nonetheless manages to damage it. This quality of hers is repeatedly emphasised throughout the novel.

As I read I expected the reason for this to be revealed at some point, and if it was somehow related to her unusually powerful magic. As far as I can see though, no information is given and so Agnieszka's extreme untidiness remains as a kind of unfired "Chekhov's gun".

Note that I refer to her extreme untidiness. I can certainly understand that a peasant girl will be gauche and awkward when she goes to the royal court, or when she is in the presence of the Dragon. As a commenter remarked, that would simply fall into characterisation. But Agnieszka's untidiness seems to go well beyond that - the character is literally unable to walk five steps without ripping her clothes and getting covered in mud.

Did I miss something in the text? Or has Novik given an explanation for this characteristic of Agnieszka in an interview or discussion?

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    The author says that the character was based on this image taken from a book of poetry which included a story called "Agnieszka Skrawek Nieba"
    – Valorum
    Jun 6, 2022 at 12:06
  • Well, Chekhov's gun must fire, otherwise it's not a Chekhov's gun.
    – Mithoron
    Jun 6, 2022 at 12:31
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    @Mithoron no, Chekhov's gun is the principle. Chekhov says it should either be fired or not shown - you can say the principle wasn't followed by saying the 'gun' wasn't fired and thus shouldn't exist. But by saying all unfired guns cannot be considered 'Chekhov's gun' misses the point of it all. I'm certain Clara knows all this and is using the term correctly.
    – AncientSwordRage
    Jun 6, 2022 at 16:12
  • @AncientSwordRage And, if it's not fired, it's a Squid on the Mantelpiece.
    – Spencer
    Jun 6, 2022 at 17:10

2 Answers 2

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Rereading the book, I noted this interesting passage when Agnieszka returns to the village for the first time after she was taken away. She had realised only recently that she was capable of doing magic (the Dragon never thought to tell her explicitly) and she tells this to Kasia:

when I at last, haltingly, told her [Kasia] I could do magic, she said, startling the breath out of me, “I should have known,” and I gawked at her. “Strange things always happened to you... Even the way your clothes were always such a mess — you couldn’t get so dirty if you tried, and I knew you weren’t trying, you were never trying. I saw a branch reach out and snag your skirt once, really just reach out —”

This certainly seems to imply that the cause of her untidiness is her magic - tree branches reach out and snag her as she passes, for example. It is not simple carelessness. It also underlines another point, which is that Agnieszka does not relish her untidiness, as the answer by straycat implies, but that it is something that happens to her, which she puts up with as best she can.

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  • Well spotted! I do think the forest’s desire to claim her has something to do with it though - a lot of the more severe instances include nature, like the tree branch reaching out, and the cushion being ruined by a burr on her dress. So is it possible it’s not her magic, but the fact that the cursed wood wants her because of it, that causes these problems? Jun 24, 2022 at 12:38
  • @GuybrushMcKenzie My personal understanding is that nature and natural things "love" Agnieszka, for lack of a better word, and want to be near her, just as she loves being near them. I think this would be true even if the wood wasn't cursed.
    – MJ713
    Jun 29, 2022 at 17:49
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Agnieszka's untidiness is a core character trait that has a clear purpose in the story

With her untidiness, Agnieszka is a striking contrast to her best friend Kasia. The contrast between Kasia's princess-like perfection and Agnieszka's tomboyish look-and-feel makes their relation a nice example of Odd Friendship. This relationship of opposites also sets the stage for the Refused-By-The-Call-twist of Agnieszka being chosen instead of Kasia.

But the friendship to Kasia is only a warmup -- the real workout for Agnieszka's untidiness as literary device comes with her relationship to the Dragon. The relationship itself is a clear case of "Opposites Attract", but it serves also as a metaphor for the two styles of magic described in "Uprooted" -- the controlled, nearly scientific style used by the Dragon and other officially registered mages vs. the wild and untamed magic practised by the legendary Baba Yaga and now learned by Agnieszka.

Agnieszka's disregard of tidiness makes it intuitively easy for her to follow Baba Yaga's "recipes" or even find her own way in the deep forest of wild magic. There could be a magical connection between Agnieszka's aptitude for wild magic and her untidiness, but this isn't required for the story to work. The simple fact that Agnieszka is accustomed to untidiness (or even prefers it) already means she does not need magic to be orderly and controllable and thus can easily cope with the wild magic of Baba Yaga, while the Dragon tries to find order where there is none.

So I think Chekhov's gun is in this case a shotgun with two barrels -- and by the end of the story both have been fired. Multiple times.

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    +1 from me for the nice answer. But I'm not completely convinced. This argument would be equally valid if Agnieszka was merely "very untidy". But she is preternaturally untidy - chairs are destroyed just from contact with her! Jun 8, 2022 at 7:38

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